May 15, 2004

"Haunted."

I read some of the reader opinions at the link for the novel in the previous post. You always have to wonder, reading those things, whether they are written by friends or relatives of the author (though the book really did sound good as described on the radio).

Ever notice how often a book is called "haunting"? Two out of eight customer reviews at that link called the book "haunting." It seems any time people actually like a book, they are haunted by it. That's rather disturbing. You wouldn't read the book at all if you knew you weren't going to like it. But then you like it and it dogs you in some eerie, scary way.

"Haunt" ought to be a strong word. My favorite use of the word is in the movie Wuthering Heights, when Laurence Olivier says "Haunt me, Cathy!" He doesn't mean he'd like a poignant memory of her to linger. He really means he wants her ghost to haunt him.
...I know that ghosts have wandered on the Earth. Be with me always. Take any form. Drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this dark alone where I cannot find you. I cannot live without my life. I cannot die without my soul.

That's haunt. I love that movie scene, but let me give you the original Emily Bronte text too:
"Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you - haunt me, then! The murdered DO haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always - take any form - drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I can not live without my life! I can not live without my soul!"
The screenplay stayed pretty close to the original. Replacing "Oh, God! it is unutterable!" was the sheer presence of Laurence Olivier. "Dark alone" replaced "abyss," which they couldn't trust people to understand. "I can not live without my life!"--that's great movie-talk, straight out of the original. The second "I cannot live" in the original became "I cannot die" in the screenplay. Interesting! Instead of parallelism and repetition, the movie has Cathy's death create a dilemma: "I cannot live" and "I cannot die." That's quite good. (Quality screenwriting by Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht, and (uncredited) John Huston.)

But I know it's futile to inform the world that they ought to preserve the strength of the word "haunt." The sad thing about taking a strong word and using it as an ordinary word is that as an ordinary word it becomes a cliché, so it really has lost its entire reason for being. A whole category of words that have had their strong meaning sucked out of them by overuse consists of words that express approval: grand, great, magnificent, marvelous, awesome. A subcategory consists of words that originally suggested unreality: fantastic, incredible, unreal, fabulous. Fortunately, there are so many of these words of praise in English, that we can fend off the cliché problem by periodically switching to a new one. I remember when no one used "awesome," then it got started, then it got overused, and then it became generally recognized that it was idiotic to say it, even as a joke. So maybe it will lie fallow for a long time and become reusable. There's no chance of "haunting" going through that process though, because though it is overused, it's certainly not overused the way "awesome" was. It's got to be quite conspicuous before people become embarrassed. On the other hand, since "haunting" is overused by people who seem to want to appear elegant and educated, maybe there is some hope that embarrassment will set in more easily.

No comments: